Gold is the strength, the sinnewes of the world': Continental Gold and Tudor England

Gold is the strength, the sinnewes of the world': Continental Gold and Tudor England

Kelleher, Richard

The British Numismatic Society, Vol. 77 (2007)


The tradition of using gold currency in these islands dates back as far as the late Iron Age, with the impetus for the first indigenous production of gold coins derived from continental predecessors. The ‘Gallo-Belgic’ coins, from north-west Gaul, are widely agreed to have been the first gold coins to find use in Britain, and it was from the design of these that the indige- nous Iron Age staters were copied and adapted. The Roman period saw gold coinage used much more widely as an entire currency system was imported to Britain, with first the aureus and later the solidus circulating as the high-value coin of Empire. In the late sixth century gold tremisses from Merovingian France began to be imported into Kent and the Thames valley, and this led to the development of the Anglo-Saxon thrymsas in the seventh century.

Gold from the Islamic east, Byzantium and Italy inspired the kings of the Middle Ages to look to produce their own coinages, and as England’s mercantile links with the near continent developed so the appearance of coins from continental neighbours increased. Gold coin was becoming an increasingly important requirement of the burgeoning powers of north-west Europe in the medieval period. Though none had yet struck their own native gold denominations, documentary sources at least point to Islamic and Byzantine gold coins in use from the twelfth century, largely for ceremonial and ecclesiastical payments and for the financing of military campaigns. The presence of ‘Oboli de Muse’ (Almohad dinars) in the England of Richard I serve to clarify an increasing need for larger denomination coinages,3 and docu- mentary evidence alludes to the circulation of Byzantine bezants in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.4 Henry III zealously sought to fill his coffers with such specie and was eventually to issue his own gold penny, largely based on the Florentine florin, in 1257. Though an unsuccessful enterprise in the short-term, this was a requirement that would not go away and Edward III, after an unsuccessful first attempt, struck gold in his own name from 1344. From this time forward every English monarch would strike specie in gold. Up until the middle of the fifteenth century the volume of foreign coins entering the English currency was modest, and it was the Tudor period that saw waves of foreign gold begin to enter the country.

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